In the 1800s, women flocked to Australia. It wasn’t the dream they were promised

We’re sorry, this service is currently unavailable. Please try again later.

Advertisement

In the 1800s, women flocked to Australia. It wasn’t the dream they were promised

By Sonia Harford

The British advertising of the 1830s was hard for women to resist. Travel to Australia! Free passage is offered, lucrative work awaits and Sydney has five men to every woman.

So seductive was this promotional campaign that 3000 single, free women voyaged to the colonies of New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land to even up the gender balance. Yet disembarking wasn’t quite what the brochure promised.

“When they stepped onto the pier in Sydney they were met by 2000 men baying at them and jeering,” says songwriter Helen Begley, creator of the new musical theatre production Voyage. “They had to run the gauntlet of these men to get to their accommodation, with barely half a dozen police to protect them.”

From left: Carly Ellis, Penny Larkins and Helen Begley chart the journey of single British women to the burgeoning colonies.

From left: Carly Ellis, Penny Larkins and Helen Begley chart the journey of single British women to the burgeoning colonies.Credit:Justin McManus

Begley, who discovered the hopes and horrors of the women’s voyages in historian Elizabeth Rushen’s book Single and Free, believes this chapter of Australian history should be better known.

“I found the start of the girls’ stories in Damned Whores and God’s Police, by Anne Summers. Then, on a trip to Sydney, I went to Hyde Park Barracks – where later shipments of women were processed – and I came across Liz Rushen’s work and started writing songs about the girls.” She has now expanded Voyage from a song-cycle to an all-female stage production.

Begley says she was “flabbergasted” at descriptions of the women’s arrival in Sydney, which left her questioning how much attitudes towards women had changed.

Rushen writes that from 1833 to 1837, 14 ships set sail with unmarried women – called “cargo” by the shipowners. “It was the first scheme of its time,” Begley says. “There was an amazing advertising campaign in England: they were promised free passage and good wages, better than they were getting at home; sunshine; five men to every woman; lots of opportunity.”

With sensible intentions, the scheme’s backers sought to export Britain’s excess labour – such as servants and agricultural workers – to the colonies, where these skills were much in demand. At journey’s end, a reception committee of respectable women was expected to meet and help employ them.

But Australian officials resented the costs and suspected that independence in a woman equated to loose morals. Rushen writes: “Viewed en masse, [the women] were ‘unprotected’, beyond the controlling influence of a male guardian.”

Advertisement

The migrants’ challenges began at the British and Irish docks. “There was a lot of risk involved – first of all, the passage over here on a tall ship, which they were packed into for months,” Begley says.

“They were supervised, but often there were problems with the superintendent or captain, and the women were vulnerable to the sailors, to each other, to illness, storms, pirates. They weren’t with their families. In the particular voyage we present, they are subject to a lot of abuse from the superintendent, who was quite a tyrant.”

Unlike convict transportation, the scheme wasn’t designed for the destitute or criminal, covering women at different stages of life, with or without means.

“There were a lot of working-class girls, but also middle-class women in search of adventure,” Begley says. “Liz [Rushen] talks about this tiny little window where women could reinvent themselves and have some agency about their future. The women generally had to have some kind of skill to get on the boat … Farm girls, seamstresses, governesses, milliners and maids were sought. Some women came over to set up a business.”

After making contact with Rushen, Begley began to compose more songs and eventually asked actor Penny Larkins to join her in a collective they called The Good Girl Song project. With Carly Ellis on board, the cast of two now plays all 11 characters on stage, accompanied by three on-stage musicians.

“I’m the voice of the Irish everywoman, the good girl – poor and desperately hoping for change and a new life,” Ellis says. “We also play the reception committee members and three particularly unpleasant men, including the superintendent, who tries to keep the women in line.”

When the first two boats landed in Sydney, the women were directed to the lumberyard, the largest space available, with a fence to keep them safe.

“There would be employment days, where employers would negotiate with the girls to hire them, and these were organised by the Ladies’ Reception Committee – women who had high status in the colony: wives and daughters of the officials.”

Yet the women’s freedom and independence was still an affront.

There was class stratification in early Australia, as they were trying to replicate England, but it didn’t quite work. So the women were trying to navigate this; where do we fit? We’ve got more freedom but there’s a risk. If we break the law we’ll be convicts. Really, they had come to an open-air prison.”

As Larkins points out, this meant “they were a threat to the convict women because they had more status and were taking their jobs”.

Loading

Another crucial element to the story is dispossession and the experiences of Indigenous people in the 1830s. Begley turned to Wiradjuri author Nola Turner-Jensen for guidance.

“It needs to be acknowledged that atrocities were happening at the same time these girls were arriving,” Begley says. “There was land clearing, there were massacres – and they would have been aware of it. Nola did script edits with me and she gave me permission to show the colonial women’s racism. She told us to tell the truth. She could contextualise the attitudes the women would have had towards the Indigenous women of the time.”

The stage version of Begley’s work has made its own long voyage over several years across the nation’s many folk festivals, but having shared her songs with audiences, Begley felt ready to branch out.

“I invited Penny on board early because I needed a storyteller as well as a fine singer,” she says. “We’re trying to bring that folk music voice into another world, so we tested the voices with audiences. They love a good story. Some people wanted to talk about the ships. A lot of people didn’t know the stories and there’s not a lot of folk songs about colonial women of that time, so this is our chance to address that.”

Voyage is at the Capital, Bendigo, May 3-4; Potato Shed, Geelong, May 12; and fortyfivedownstairs, Melbourne, May 13-23. thegoodgirlsongproject.com

Most Viewed in Culture

Loading